Charlotte Smith was already a clotheshorse when, in 2004, she inherited 3,500 pieces of designer clothing from her late godmother, Doris Darnell of Philadelphia, an insatiable collector of couture. In the decade since, Smith has grown the collection – through auction purchases and the odd bequest – to 8,000 items, which she lends to museums across Australia, her current base. Her sartorial bounty – a not uncommon trove these days – has prompted her and others with similarly acquisitive tendencies to ponder an ever-pressing question: How and where does a woman store a wardrobe that could fill several thousand square feet and is worth thousands, even millions, of dollars?
Enter Garde Robe, one of a growing number of wardrobe-storage outfits that handle this very dilemma. For years, Smith had made do with three apartment-sized plywood containers outfitted with rails and museum-grade textile boxes in a hangar in Sydney. Next year, though, she plans to ship 100 of her most intriguing pieces (those that are frequently re-examined by their fashion houses or borrowed by museums) to New York, where Garde Robe maintains a 15,000-square-foot, high-security warehouse in Long Island City. Staff at the temperature-controlled, moth-resistant facility (many of them Parsons and FIT grads) not only store, preserve and catalogue clothing, but offer a kind of concierge service, too. "I could just e-mail them and say 'The 1979 Valentino needs to go to Paris for an exhibition' or 'Mr. de la Renta is coming in to look at one of the dresses,' " Smith explains. "And they would pluck it out or deliver it on my behalf."
Currently, Garde Robe serves about 300 clients both prominent and obscure (Gwyneth Paltrow and Ivanka Trump offer testimonials on its website, but others clients include unknown couture lovers and film-industry folk). Besides New York, the company has hubs in California, Florida and Las Vegas; it also is planning to open facilities in Europe, Brazil and Hong Kong. "There's no question that the business model is improving," says Doug Greenberg, Garde Robe's San Diego-based vice-president. "The fashion industry is recognizing the need to archive and protect precious textiles and that has bled into the private-collector market."
Julia Dee, a one-time tailor who calls herself the Wardrobe Curator, began her London business when a lawyer friend asked her to store some winter coats on a rail at the back of her atelier. "A 2,000-square-foot flat might be big for London, but it won't have enough wardrobe space," Dee says. "The majority of my clientele have good jobs but they don't have [domestic] help – just a bit of disposable income. And in London, there are only a finite number of homes with 10,000 square feet."
Dee now keeps a hangar in the suburbs with 24-hour security and three full-time staff who "count, measure, organize and log – that's all they do." (Like Garde Robe, Dee's service includes a personalized digital archive.) There are double-height hanging rails and racks of breathable boxes where sweaters are wrapped in acid-free tissue.
"But it doesn't matter if you shop at Zara or have couture," she says. "It's very much about the [integrity of the] wardrobe."
Indeed, women may be getting richer as a group, controlling 75 per cent of global discretionary spending by some estimates, but many are merely becoming more aware of their clothing's value. Until recently, very few tallied "the replacement value [of their clothes]," says Dee. "I think many women would be amazed to hear that the average wardrobe could be insured for £25,000 to £30,000 ($46,000 to $55,000). It's like having a car and not paying for the service – why would you want to watch something crumble in front of your eyes?"
Once upon a time, a woman of wealth would spend thousands each season on couture, relegating older items to vintage or consignment shops. And though Smith says that such people still exist in her circle, sustainability movements and the acceptability of wearing clothes beyond their seasons of origin have had an effect on many others, who are increasingly wary of throwing out and replacing clothes. Today, Greenberg says, many of his clients are preserving their wardrobes for their daughters. "A lot of folks recognize there's an asset behind their closet doors," he says. "And people have heard stories about some amazing collection that was left in a garage and is now worthless, so they've wised up a bit."
What's more, the once-robust resale market has floundered. Elika Gibbs, a London-based wardrobe organizer who five years ago expanded into storage and curation, says, "If you love [an item], you keep it. "It's not all about the new season any more. Today, the fashionable woman is much cooler. She might have bought Céline five years ago and still mixes it with current trends. I think when you see people like Kate Middleton and Kate Moss re-wear dresses … they've made the world go, 'That's okay.' "
Gibbs's company, called Practical Princess, counts Moss among her clients, as well as noted couture collector Tamara Mellon, European royals "and women who just have a very healthy appetite for shopping and don't like getting rid of things."
So how much does it cost to archive a wardrobe? It can get pricey. Gibbs, for one, charges £1 ($1.84) per garment per week (not including hangers, clothing bags, shoe boxes and the like) for storage at Practical Princess's facility in Wales, plus hundreds more for cataloguing. Garde Robe's clients purchase annual memberships of $4,200 (U.S.) or around $7 (U.S.) per garment per month. For a collector such as Smith, such charges are well worth it, even reasonable. "I'm asset-rich and house-poor," she says. "It's cheaper to do this kind of storage than to pay for a service I have to monitor myself."
Gibbs will go as far as saying that she saves her clients money. "They're not buying willy-nilly," she says. "Things are getting looked after, they're hung properly and there's a sense of calm. And look at the price of property in London – you can't just move for the sake of a bigger wardrobe."
Not that it would even help. "One client I have loves that reality show about obsessive hoarders," Gibbs adds. "The client said, 'Without you, I'd probably be buried under my clothes.' "